Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Falcon Out West (1944)

The 1940s was the great era for B-movie crime series, like The Saint and The Falcon movies. There were also the Boston Blackie movies, although so far I have never managed to track down any of them. The Falcon Out West, dating from 1944, was my first exposure to a Falcon movie, and it was a generally painless experience.

The Falcon series started out with George Sanders as the title character, but his brother Tom Conway later took over the role. Poor Tom Conway, who really never did escape his reputation as the poor man’s George Sanders.

The Falcon is, like The Saint, one of those mysterious amateur crime-fighters with an ambiguous relationship with the police. Not a private eye exactly, more of an amateur who solves crime as a sort of hobby.

In this case a wealthy Texan rancher (named Tex apparently on the assumption that all Texans are probably named Tex) is killed by a rattlesnake bite. Not overly surprising you might think, but dying of a rattlesnake bite in a swanky 1940s New York night-club is definitely unusual. Murder seems the obvious explanation. There are of course several obvious suspects. There’s Vanessa Drake, the young woman he was about to marry. He’d just signed most of his fortune over to her as a wedding present. And she does have a reputation as being a bit of a good-time gal.

There’s also the embittered ex-wife. And the equally bitter business partner, with whom Tex had been quarreling for years. And the former business partner’s beautiful daughter. So The Falcon, more at home in the bright lights of the big city, finds himself on a Texas ranch as he tries to unravel the mystery. There are various hazards - hostile Comanches (yes this is 1944 so hostile Comanches do seem a bit odd), angry cowboys, rattlesnake, wild horses, and of course no-good dames. This being a 1940s American crime movie we realise immediately that the no-good dames are going to be the biggest danger. Fortunately the Falcon has plenty of experience in this area.

The movie’s greatest strength is that it knows it’s a B-movie and has no pretensions whatsoever to being anything else. It has one goal, which is to provide just over an hour of reasonable entertainment. It does this pretty successfully, with the tried and tested formula of murder, complicated conspiracies involving inheritances, a bit of action, a hint of romance, and of course the aforementioned beautiful dangerous women. And this one has no less than three beautiful dangerous women!

Although comic relief is a inescapable but unpleasant fact of life in American genre movies of the 30s and 40s at least in this film it isn’t overdone and it isn’t too annoying.

Tom Conway is charming and debonair, makes the police look like fools, and of course solves the mystery. Its one departure from formula is that it throws in some western cliches as well as the standard crime movie cliches. Director William Clemens isn't tempted to try anything fancy but he keeps things moving along at a good pace.

It’s harmless lightweight fun and as long as you’re not expecting anything ground-breaking or profound it should provide sufficient enjoyment to keep crime B-movie fans happy. The Falcon Out West is recommended.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man is definitely not a typical Alfred Hitchcock film. There are very few visual flourishes. This 1956 Warner Brothers production is a very stark movie, filmed in black-and-white and looking a little like a documentary or a neo-realist film. In fact of course every image is as calculated and controlled as every other image in Hitchcock’s movies – the spontaneity and the element of chance that are the essence of documentary and neo-realism were anathema to Hitchcock. But it has the look of neo-realism and that look works for this film.

The Wrong Man is the story of a musician (Manny Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda) who is falsely accused of a series of robberies. Coming from Hitchcock you might therefore expect something along the lines of The 39 Steps, though, with the protagonist dashing off across the countryside in pursuit of the real criminal with the police hard on his heels. What you get is something quite different. There is no action at all. No chases. The first half hour simply follows Manny’s life an establishes him as the archetypal regular guy – quiet, sober, a devoted husband and father, a man so law-abiding and inoffensive that he’s probably never even had a parking ticket.

The next half hour shows Manny’s world coming into collision with the nightmare world of crime and the legal system. He finds that the system is not interested in him as a human being – he is simply processed through the system. It’s not as if the cops are brutal and dishonest – they’re too indifferent for that, they simply don’t see him as an individual, and they simply don’t care.

The rest of the film follows the progress of Manny’s case, which has been taken on by lawyer Frank O’Connor (played by Anthony Quayle), and it also follows the gradual mental breakdown of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) under the strain.

This movie is, visually, very film noirish – lots of shadows, and lots of high-contrast shots, lots of shots down hallways and stairways, high-angle shots, everything that is conducive to making a film that is uncomfortable and unsettling and paranoid. Even the scenes of Manny’s home life are rather stark. Hitchcock is determined to create an uncomfortable atmosphere and to sustain it relentlessly.

There’s no comedy at all in this movie. Just as Manny and Rose find no escape from the remorselessness with which fate seems determined to crush them, so the viewer gets no escape either.

Bernard Herrmann’s music also contributes to the paranoid atmosphere – it’s rather jagged and edgy.

Vera Miles is superb as Rose – she never pushes her performance too far.  Henry Fonda (an actor I’m afraid I’ve never liked) is about as perfectly cast as it’s possible for an actor to be.

This is one of the few movies in which Hitchcock deals directly with his Catholic faith, but the religious elements certainly don’t overpower the story.

Given Hitchcock’s own loathing of the police it’s reasonable to surmise that this was a rather personal film for him!

The Wrong Man is a somewhat gruelling film to watch, but it works extremely well. It makes its point about the ease with which an innocent person can have his life completely shattered by a false accusation, and can find himself overwhelmed by a nightmare half-world of crime that he was scarcely aware even existed.  t’s not really a suspense film – it’s more concerned with the effect of the events on those involved.

The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock’s more underrated films. It’s a very compelling and very powerful film. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes To Washington is very very similar to his 1936 Mr Deeds Goes To Town. The plot is incredibly similar, the main difference is that this time Capra gets explicitly political. But as with Mr Deeds Goes To Town what is really interesting is that he deals heads-on with the failures of the political system and the failures of democracy without actually committing himself politically. You can watch this movie and at the end of it not be sure whether it’s a movie made by someone who is a registered Democrat or a registered Republican (in fact Capra was a lifelong registered Republican).

It’s a movie that exposes Washington as a cesspit of lies and corruption but it’s pretty obvious that as far as this movie is concerned it doesn’t matter which party they belong to, they’re all crooks.

It starts with the death of a U.S. Senator. A replacement needs to be found. The entire political machine of the state in question is corrupt and the only question is whether the deceased senator should be replaced by an obvious crook or by an incompetent time-server who can be trusted not to ask questions. Then the governor gets a brainwave. Why not appoint a man with popular appeal but who is so dumb that he can be manipulated with ease? He has a man in mind, the leader of a youth organisation called the Boy Rangers.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the man in question and he’s almost a carbon copy of Mr Deeds. He’s incredibly naïve and he actually believes everything he was taught at school about freedom and democracy and the Constitution and he’s so innocent that he thinks the U.S. Senate is a body of honourable men serving their country. But he’s like Mr Deeds in that his innocence is balanced by a certain clear-eyed common sense. When Jefferson Smith thinks he’s been lied to he starts to ask awkward questions and to think awkward thoughts. He puts two and two together and even when his senior colleague and mentor Senator Paine (Claude Rains) assures him that it makes five (and that it would be very much to his advantage to believe that it makes five) he knows it makes four and it’s always made four.

Senator Jefferson Smith has no ideological barrow to push, he has no ambitions, as the junior senator from his state he really is content just to do what the senior senator, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), tells him to do. Senator Paine and Jefferson’s dad had been crusading newspapermen years ago and Jefferson hero-worships Paine.

To keep Smith happy he is given a bill of his own to present. It’s a thoroughly harmless bill to set aside a very small amount of money to establish boys’ camps, this being one of Smith’s harmless obsessions. The bill is so innocuous and so unimportant that no-one would ever have noticed it except for one unfortunate accident - the boys’ camps are to be established on land that has been earmarked by Senator Paine and his crooked cronies for a dam that will divert a large amount of taxpayers’ money into their own pockets.

Suddenly Senator Jefferson Smith is a very real danger that must be eliminated. He’s such an innocent chump that destroying him politically should be child’s play, except that Smith has a useful ally in his private secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) who happens to be a shrewd political operator. However the main reason Smith is so hard to destroy is that he’s absurdly determined and doesn’t know when he’s beaten.

The scenes in the senate, with Smith facing removal from office, are an exact parallel to the sanity hearing endured by Mr Deeds in Mr Deeds Goes To Town. Once again it’s the underdog fighting for survival against overwhelming odds.

One of the things that is intriguing about Capra is that according to his son (as related on the audio commentary to Mr Deeds Goes To Town) he was obsessed with editing and with what he saw as the excessively slow pacing of American movies. This is intriguing because the pacing of Capra’s movies is atrocious. They are much much too long and scenes just go on and on and on. Frank Capra Jr does make the point that his father was not interested in the established rules of film-making and preferred to make his own rules. This can be a dangerous practice. Sometimes the rules exist for a reason. If you ignore the rules you can fall prey to self-indulgence and Frank Capra was perhaps the most self-indulgent of all the major directors of golden age Hollywood (although he was self-indulgent in an interesting and even fruitful way). The senate scenes are very effective but the effect is dissipated a little since they go too long. Overall there’s not really enough plot to just a running time of 129 minutes.

Capra’s idea in both Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington was to combine good-natured comedy with social commentary. This was hardly an original idea but what makes it interesting is that Capra’s social commentary has unexpected oddities and subtleties.

In Mr Deeds he has a hero who is a rich man and he’s also the only truly virtuous man in a corrupt town. There’s nothing startling about hero-worshipping the rich but in an American film you’d expect the rich man to be a self-made man, one who earned his wealth in a manner demonstrating the truth of the American Dream. But Mr Deeds did nothing whatever to deserve his wealth. He represents inherited wealth. He also represents the virtuous man as a paternalistic figure. This is pretty much anathema to true believers in the American Dream.

Capra does something very similar in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Senator Smith is the honest folksy down-home hero who takes on the task of confronting corruption in Washington. This should surely play out as a triumphant vindication of American democracy. There’s just one little problem. Senator Smith was not democratically elected. He was not elected at all. He was simply chosen by a thoroughly crooked state political machine to fill a casual vacancy. The senator who really was elected democratically, Senator Paine, is the crook. So the movie can just as easily be seen as suggesting that democracy simply doesn’t work.

What makes it intriguing of course is that Capra did believe in democracy. But he obviously didn't believe in it in a naïve way. In this movie the people chose wrongly in choosing Senator Paine. The people were hoodwinked by the press. The manipulation of public opinion by the media is a major theme of the film. When ruthless cliques control the media and corrupt machine control the electoral process democracy can be in really big trouble. When the movie came out the Washington press corps was enraged. Many powerful political figures were enraged as well. This is clearly a movie that successfully hit its targets.

The trouble with political movies is that almost invariably they try to bludgeon the viewer into accepting a particular political program or political ideology. That’s what makes Mr Smith Goes To Washington so refreshing. It isn’t trying to convert the viewer to a political position, it’s simply trying to provoke the viewer into thinking about weaknesses in the system.

Capra was a director who had zero interest in making realistic movies. The plots are contrived and they’re deliberately contrived and that’s the only way the outrageous stories could work. In spite of this though his movies are very very realistic in portraying the psychological realities of power, or corruption, of ambition and of avarice. While you’re not going to believe for one second that a man like Jefferson Smith could exist and could get to Washington, he’s more an allegorical figure than a human being, you will believe absolutely that this is the way political corruption works, this is the way ideals get corroded, this is the way once honest men get compromised.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a movie that even someone like myself, with an absolutely deadly loathing for message films, can enjoy. It’s a strange movie by one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors but it’s fascinating and entertaining and it’s highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936)

I have a very unhappy history wth Frank Capra. Frank and I just don’t get on. Well of course I’ve never meant Capra so I’m referring to his movies. It’s his movies I have a difficult relationship. Maybe it’s partly my fault and maybe it’s partly Frank’s fault. There are times when it has seemed that we’re going to reach an understanding. It Happened One Night wasn’t too painful to endure, in fact it was rather pleasant. After seeing that movie I had a feeling we were going to get on just fine. And then along came Arsenic and Old Lace  and things got very unpleasant. I thought Lost Horizon might be the breakthrough movie that finally put our cinematic relationship on terms of firm friendship. I came so close to liking Lost Horizon. It’s the kind of idea that I love. It has wonderful moments. But then just as we were getting along swell it all fell apart. But I’m not one to nurse grudges so here I am sitting down to watch one of Capra’s best-known movies, Mr Deeds Goes To Town.

When you mention Capra the first word that will spring into many people’s mind is corn. And Mr Deeds Goes To Town certainly has an extraordinarily cornball opening. One of the wealthiest men in America, Martin Semple, has died and he has left his vast fortune to a very obscure nephew. The nephew is so obscure that the lawyers handling the Semple have great difficulty find him him. He is finally located in the sleepy little town of Mandrake Falls in Vermont. And here’s the first sign that maybe this movie is going to be interesting. It’s almost impossible for Hollywood types to deal with small town America without sneering. This movie seems to be at the very least poking gentle fun at the rustic inhabitants of Mandrake Falls. But that’s not quite what’s happening. The simple folk of Mandrake Falls have an amazing kind of self-confidence in their rural lifestyle. You sense that they feel rather sorry for people who come from New York. It must be awful for them not living in a civilised place like Mandrake Falls but one should treat them with kindness.

Capra is taking sides, in a very gentle way, but he’s not taking the side that just about everybody else in Hollywood would take.

Mr Longfellow Deeds, now a very very rich man indeed, finds himself in the big city and all the people who had been bleeding his uncle dry assume they‘re going to be able to do the same thing with the nephew. The lawyers, who for some reason are incredibly anxious that no-one should take a close look at the books, naturally assume that they’re going to have no trouble at all with this yokel from the sticks. Now of course we know it’s not going to be that simple. We assume that Mr Deeds will prove to have enough down-home wisdom to get the better of them eventually. Again Capra surprises them. Mr Deeds is certainly a hayseed but he has more than homespun common sense. He’s actually in some ways as sharp as a tack. The head of the legal firm that has been managing the Semple estate is a crook and this is something that Mr Deeds has been aware of right from the start. Mr Deeds might be innocent in some ways but he isn’t stupid. He doesn’t see things the way most big city people see them but that’s because his perspective is different, it’s not that he’s dumb.

Mr Deeds naturally attracts the interests of the reptiles of the press and in particular he attracts the attention of Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), a reporter with the ethics of a rattlesnake. She befriends Mr Deeds without telling him she’s a reporter and it’s easy for her to write articles making him look foolish. It’s the way she makes her loathsome living. But things get complicated. Babe has never actually met a man like Mr Deeds. It’s not just that he is decent and honest (although that’s rare enough in the circles Babe is used to moving in) he’s also wonderfully masculine in a very old-fashioned way. If a guy does the dirty on him Mr Deeds’ natural reaction is to slug him. On the other hand Mr Deeds displays a hopelessly outdated chivalry towards women. He really is a man from another world and another era but maybe he’s what the cynical Babe Bennett has been looking for.

Mr Deeds soon figures out that he doesn’t need twenty million dollars and it’s also clear to him that having that amount of money isn’t going to make him any happier than he was back in Mandrake Falls. The obvious solution is to give away most of the money but to do it in a way that will do some good. He comes up with a scheme for taking unemployed men and setting them up on family farms. This is too much for his crooked lawyers who try to have him declared insane.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a movie that is obviously going to be interpreted in a political manner and there’s really no way of avoiding that. What’s interesting though is that the political stance of this movie is not at all obvious and it’s not at all what one would expect in a 1930s Hollywood movie and it’s not what you might expect from Frank Capra if you believe most of what you’ve read about him. The first important point that is very easily overlooked is that the movie clearly tells us that Longfellow Deeds inherited a fortune a $20 million and it clearly tells us that his farm distribution plan is going to cost $18 million. So it’s equally clear that Mr Deeds intends to hang on to a couple of million, and in 1936 a couple of million dollars was enough to make you very very rich. Mr Deeds intends to give away the surplus money that he doesn’t need but he’s not such a blockhead as to give away his entire fortune.

It’s also interesting that his scheme is to resettle the unemployed on family farms. This is in fact an ultra-conservative notion. It’s not an idea that would find favour with socialists or New Deal Democrats. It’s an idea that demonstrates an overwhelming desire to reject the modern world entirely, to reject socialism and capitalism in equal measure, and go back to the world of 19th century Small Town America. Mr Deeds does not see utopia in the visions pushed by politicians. He sees utopia in the simpler life of small rural communities living close to the land. This is a guy who qualifies as an out-and-out reactionary.

It has to be said that this is one of the corniest movies ever made. But it also has to be said that it doesn’t pretend otherwise. It wears its corniness on its sleeve. That can be difficult to take. You just have to accept this movie on its own terms. If you’ve grown tired of fashionable cynicism or fashionable irony then you might find this corniness oddly appealing.

I don’t think this film would have worked with anybody but Gary Cooper. He has the ability to make you believe that a guy like Longfellow Deeds really could exist. He has a totally relaxed approach to the rôle. Mr Deeds could have been unbearable smug or precious or self-righteous. There are just so many ways this character could have failed to work.

Jean Arthur is odd but her performance sort of works.

If you accept that Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a movie that has no truck whatsoever with realism and that Capra likes to do things in ways that would horrify most other directors then the corniness and the contrived plot twists become oddly enjoyable. While I detest message movies I wasn’t overly bothered by this one because the message was one that would have been anathema to both Republicans and Democrats at the time - it was like a back to the future political message.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a strange experience but much to my surprise I enjoyed it. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Kim (1950)

Rousing adventure movies about the British Empire were immensely popular in the 1930s and 40s. Kim was a relatively late entry in this cycle, being released by MGM in 1950. The combination of Kipling and Hollywood must have seemed like a surefire success, as it had been for Gunga Din in 1939. But adapting Kim for the screen was not as simple as it might have sounded as first.

Kim, published in 1901, was KipIing’s masterpiece and it’s a tale of the Great Game, which was the game of espionage played out between Britain and Imperial Russia in the 19th century. This was the first Cold War. That sounds like a great basis for a movie but the novel Kim was a lot more than a spy story. To dismiss Kim as a spy story would be like dismissing War and Peace as a mere war story, or dismissing Crime and Punishment as just a murder mystery. Kipling was a complex and ambitious writer and Kim is a complex and ambitious novel.

The setting is British India. Kim (played by Dean Stockwell) is a young Indian street urchin aged probably around twelve who is also, despite his tender years, a spy working unofficially for the British. Kim is intelligent and cunning and while he’s exasperating he’s also extremely likeable. Kim is actually white and he knows it but he also knows that white orphans get sent to school and that’s a hideous fate that he intends to avoid. Kim is white when it’s worth his while but mostly it’s more advantageous to be Indian. He is infinitely adaptable. These are qualities that allow him to survive on the streets with ease, and they make him an excellent spy. He works for Mahbub Ali (played by Errol Flynn), also known as the Red Beard, who is a British secret agent.

Kim’s friendship with Mahbub Ali is important but he soon develops an even more important friendship, with a holy man (played by Paul Lukas). He becomes the holy man’s disciple. He is a very useful disciple since he is an accomplished beggar, and that happens to be the most important quality required in a holy man’s disciple. Holy men are a dime a dozen in India but Kim comes to believe that his holy man is something special. And the holy man regards Kim as being rather special as well. It is a matter of destiny. It is the destiny of this holy man to search for a holy river and it is destiny that has brought him Kim as a disciple.

Kipling was an unabashed imperialist which automatically makes him anathema to many people today but Kipling was an exceptionally complex and nuanced imperialist. Kipling was a big fan of western civilisation but he was a big fan of eastern civilisation as well. Kim will discover his European heritage but that does not mean he will turn his back on his Indian heritage. And while Kim’s career as a British intelligence agent is important Kipling sees his part in the holy man’s quest as being equally important. Kim is caught between two civilisations but sees no reason why he can’t be part of both. Just as Kipling sees no reason why he should choose one or the other. Kipling’s views are deeply unfashionable but his respect for Indian culture was profound and sincere.

Getting all this into a movie was obviously just about impossible but it makes a very spirited attempt.

It’s helped by some fine acting. Errol Flynn gets top billing but Flynn knows that this time he’s a supporting player. Kim is the central figure and regardless of the billing Dean Stockwell is the star. Whether the movie succeeds or fails depends entirely on Stockwell. He is equal to the task. Kim is a character who is frighteningly precocious and he could easily become irritating but that doesn’t happen. Kim knows more about the world than any child his age should know but rather than making him insufferable it brings him the first glimmerings of wisdom. Stockwell’s performance is extraordinary.

As for Flynn, he gives a rather low-key performance but it works because he’s supposed to be a spy and if spies want to reach old age they learn that there’s something to be said for blending in. And he makes us feel that when it’s necessary Mahbub Ali can be very businesslike and very deadly. This is not the dashing romantic hero Errol Flynn of the 30s but then that’s not not what this rôle requires. What is required is that we should believe he’s an experienced secret agent and he manages that.

Paul Lukas was a Hungarian actor and while he makes a very good holy man he comes across as a Hungarian holy man rather than an Indian one which is very disconcerting!

The problem with this movie is that even if you concentrate on the spy story elements this is a rather involved story and it’s going to end up being a fairly lengthy movie (in fact it runs for 113 minutes) and it’s not going to be a non-stop action movie. It’s just not a non-stop action story. There’s also the added difficulty that there’s no romance angle at all, and there’s no way such an angle could have been introduced.

Yet another difficulty this movie faces is that it assumes you have at least a vague knowledge of the period and of the Great Game, and that you’re familiar with the hysterical Russophobia of the period.

To appreciate this movie I really think you need to have read KipIing’s novel. If you have read the novel you’ll find that this is a more successful adaptation than you might have expected. Recommended, but with the caveats already alluded to.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Winchester ’73 (1950)

I used not to be a great fan of Hollywood westerns although I have been gradually developing a resect for the genre as I get older. Anthony Mann’s westerns have a certain reputation, a very high reputation, especially this one, and his entries in the film noir genre are pretty good, so Winchester ’73 sounded like it might be worth a watch. It was made at Universal in 1950.

Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) both find themselves in Dodge City competing in a shooting competition. The prize is a Winchester Model 1873 rifle. But not just any Winchester rifle - this is a kind of Special Edition Winchester. President Ulysses S. Grant owns one of these very special Winchesters, and the Marshall of Dodge City (a guy by the name of Wyatt Earp) expresses the view that any man would give his right arm for this rifle.

Wyatt Earp has other problems on his hands - keeping Lin and Dutch Henry from killing each other. These two are obviously nursing grudges against each other of stupendous proportions. After the competition Dutch Henry steals the rifle and heads off out of Dodge City with Lin in hot pursuit.

There are a number of sub-plots involving some rather colourful characters. Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) is a saloon entertainer who is being run out of Dodge City at the time Lin arrives. Lin tries to do the gentlemanly thing and intervene to help a lady but to no avail.

Lola reappears slightly later, on her way to her new ranch with her new husband. Unfortunately the Sioux are on the warpath and having just wiped out Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn they’re in an aggressive mood. Lola and her husband are pursued by a war band and husband Steve abandons Lola to her fate. Luckily Lin and his buddy and faithful companion turn up at this moment and Lola is rescued. Well sort of. The three take refuge with a small troop of US Cavalry but this troop is about to be wiped out by an even bigger Sioux war party. But all is not lost and the cavalry now have three extra fighters (including Lola who is a feisty kind of gal and knows how to handle a gun).

The destinies of Lola and Lin seem to be strangely entwined. Soon after Lola hooks up with notorious outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea), who just happens to be planning a bank robbery with none other than Dutch Henry. In fact the fates of all the major characters will converge as events move towards the final showdown between Lin and Dutch Henry.

This was one of the earliest appearances of the dark and obsessed side to Jimmy Stewart, a side that would be used to brilliant effect by Hitchcock in Rear Window and Vertigo. Like the characters he played in those films Lin is neither a simple hero nor an actual villain, but he’s definitely dangerously obsessed. Stewart always shone in these darker roles and this is no exception. All the actors are good, with Dan Duryea being (as you’d expect) a chilling but highly entertaining bad guy.

As she so often did Shelley Winters goes very close to stealing the picture from Stewart. And like Stewart’s character Lola is rather ambiguous. She seems to be a woman of dubious moral reputation but she has considerable strength of character. She’s no shrinking violet but she’s no mere femme fatale either.

The Winchester rifle itself becomes a character in the movie, changing hands many times and somehow leading everyone who possesses it to their destiny, for good or ill.

Anthony Mann directs with the energy and flair that he brought to his best movies in the film noir genre.

Winchester ’73 is a classic revenge western with some twists, superbly acted and it’s worth a look even if you’re not a big western fan. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Poison Ivy (1953)

Eddie Constantine is today best-known for his role as Special Agent Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. In fact he played FBI agent Lemmy Caution is a long series of French action thrillers in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest of these films, dating from 1953, is Poison Ivy (original French title La Môme vert-de-gris).

Lemmy Caution was created by Peter Cheyney who was unusual among English crime novelists in being an adherent of the hardboiled style, although it was actually a wildly over-the-top and exaggerated version of that style. Cheyney's books (such as I'll Say She Does and Never a Dull Moment) were extremely popular in Britain and even more popular on the Continent.

The very successful series of Lemmy Caution movies made in France in the 50s made gravel-voiced American-born Eddie Constantine a major European film star.

Poison Ivy opens with some punk meeting with an accident (an accident of the fatal kind) in a bar in Casablanca. Before he croaks he talks about two million dollars in gold and something about a place called Mayberry.

This information filters its way to Washington and it interests the FBI very much. The Mayberry is a ship and it is indeed carrying two million dollars worth of gold bullion en route to an African country. Special Agent Lemmy Caution is soon on his way to Casablanca.

His hunt for the gang of bullion thieves takes him to exotic locations such as Casablanca and Tangiers, and to various seedy waterfront dives and bars. Lemmy has no problem with that. He is always happy to have a whisky, just to be sociable. Or even several whiskies. In fact as many whiskies as it takes.

In these bars he meets lots of hardboiled no-good dames, which is OK because Lemmy rather likes hardboiled no-good dames. And the dames like the craggy-featured tough guy Lemmy as well. Lemmy’s old mother used to tell him that there ere two types of women in the world, the ones who wanted to save men and the ones who wanted to ruin men. Lemmy definitely prefers the latter.

In between drinking whisky and chasing dames and getting into fist fights Lemmy manages to get himself captured by the gang, led by the smooth-talking Rudy Saltierra (played delightfully by Swiss-born cult movie icon Howard Vernon).

Lemmy has no real doubt about the identity of the bad guy. His problem is that he has three corpses to account for and although he knows the murders are connected he doesn’t know what the connections are. And he knows the bullion is the target but he has no idea how the gang are intending to cary out the heist.

The movie features a classic film noir femme fatale in the person of the glamorous night-club singer Carlotta de la Rue. She is played by Dominique Wilms, an odd but fascinating exotic beauty who was born to play dangerous bad girls. It’s something she does with a good deal of style. Her performance is a definite highlight and she has great chemistry with Eddie Constantine. She also appears in several other Eddie Constantine movies.

As for Eddie Constantine, no-one would claim that he’s a good actor in a conventional sense but he’s perfect for this kind of rôle, he knows exactly what is expected of him and he delivers the goods.

Poison Ivy is clearly inspired by American film noir and hardboiled private eye movies, but it’s also influenced by comic-books and, I suspect, by movie serials as well. In fact it’s inspired by all the many varieties of deliciously trashy American pulp culture that the French adore so much. This is an outrageously pulpy movie, and it has a very slight camp sensibility (and being a French movie I’m inclined to think that this is deliberate rather than accidental).

While this is a B-movie in spirit it it was presumably made on a reasonably generous budget since it includes some nice North African location shooting.

There are lots of clichés in the plot but that’s the point of the plot. The fun comes from knowing that the movie is going to follow the conventions of the genre. We look forward to these familiar elements. There is for example the scene in which the bad guy, instead of just killing the hero as a sensible villain would do, proceeds to explain his whole criminal scheme to the hero in intricate detail. It’s a cliché but it’s what you expect in a movie serial or a B-movie. Writer-director Bernard Borderie clearly has a deep understanding of the hardboiled private eye genre.

As far as I know the Lemmy Caution movies are only available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In this case the picture quality is perfectly acceptable although the sound leaves just a little to be desired at times.

Poison Ivy is highly recommended to anyone who loves two-fisted square-jawed wise-cracking heroes and glamorous no-good dames.